'Promising Young Woman' Marks Promising Feature Debut Of Director Emerald Fennell
Carey Mulligan stars in darkly comic female revenge tale
"Outrage" (1950, directed by Ida Lupino)
"I Spit on Your Grave" (1978)
"Ms. 45" (1981)
"Shame" (1988, Australia)
"The Accused" (1988)
"Hard Candy" (2005)
"American Mary" (2012)
"The Hunting Ground" (2015)
"Promising Young Woman" marks the feature directing debut of Emerald Fennell and it has already garnered praise and awards. The film is playing at the South Bay Drive-In and is now streaming on platforms like Amazon.
The press kit for the film contains this warning, so I am including it before the review as well: "Please note, audiences should be aware that the subject matter in this film deals with issues of sexual assault that may be disturbing and difficult for some viewers."
The subject was so "difficult and disturbing" that my TV review that contained video from the trailer was deemed inappropriate to air on the evening news where parents might be watching with their kids present. The fact that KPBS felt the evening news was not the proper venue to have a film like this reviewed goes to the very point of the film, which is that this topic rarely seems appropriate to discuss or examine.
One of the film's trailers proclaims that "every now and then a film comes along that ignites a conversation." And for once there's truth in advertising. Whether you like the film or not, it is likely to stir discussion but it is not a discussion everyone will be comfortable with and parents may not want to discuss it with their kids but maybe they should. The fact that the film tackles the topic with anger, outrage, dark humor and some ambiguity makes it even more controversial.
A promising opening
"Promising Young Woman" has a savagely funny and wickedly provocative open. The scene is a bar. We see an unattractive array of men dancing and eventually our focus turns to a drunk, solitary young woman. A group of men are watching her as she looks about to pass out. They comment rudely on her condition but one guy suggests they be kinder in their evaluation of her. He then goes to check on her and offer to get her a ride home. She accepts. But as they rideshare, he suggests why not stop at his place before taking her home. She's not in any condition to say no so he brings her up to his place and pours her a full and undiluted glass of alcohol. She asks to lie down so he puts her in his bed and when she appears completely passed out he makes his move to undress her. That's when the young woman asks "What are you doing?" and stuns the man with the fact that she is not drunk at all.
That scene is brilliant because of all the stereotypes it raises and tears down about everything from nice guys to "women who are just asking for trouble." It is also great for flipping the roles of victim and predator, and for giving us a female character willing to challenge all the B.S. and school the predatory "nice guy" about taking advantage of women when they are vulnerable.
There are moments of brilliance in "Promising Young Woman," but in some ways that brilliance makes the flaws harder to ignore. Carey Mulligan plays Cassie, the young woman we met in the opening. She's not easy to decipher. She’s smart, sarcastic, lives with her parents and works in a small coffee shop where she seems annoyed to have to deal with customers. She also leads a double life. Each week she seeks to expose men who prey on vulnerable women at bars. There's a reason for her mission but we don't understand all the details till much later in the film.
The film's best moments involve Cassie confronting guys who insist they are nice while what they are doing is reprehensible.
When she snaps out of her drunk act and tries to make the "nice guy" face up to his inappropriate and sometimes criminal behavior, that's when the film is at its brutal best. One guy (played by the likable actor Christopher Mintz-Plasse of "Superbad") claims to have misread her signals and that he thought they had a connection. But Cassie shreds him as he reveals he knows absolutely nothing about her — not even her name.
The scene captures the way certain men perceive themselves and their actions, and then points out the problem in their reasoning.
But the films also has frustrating inconsistencies from its first-time feature director-writer Emerald Fennell. It serves up female revenge but in a manner that may titillate male audiences. Perhaps that's a deliberate decision because that’s might be the only way to get certain men's attention and teach them a lesson. But to do this, Fennell hypersexualizes Cassie on her nocturnal missions and that makes the film feel like it’s falling victim to stereotypes rather than challenging them. It makes it seem like these sexual assaults occur not just because Cassie appears vulnerable but because she is (as the film progresses) wearing more and more suggestive attire. It seems to add fuel to the notion that rape is about sex and about victims appearing sexy when rape is really about violence and power with a sexual act as the means of delivering that violence and exercising that power.
The ending is also problematic, not just in terms of credibility, but also in terms of robbing Cassie of some of her agency. It is an ending with a "gotcha" sting but it is also cynical about a woman being able to change the world around her. I understand that Fennell did not want to have Cassie seek a violent, gun-toting style of revenge that we often see men exercise on screen from "Death Wish" to "John Wick."
And so much of the film displays a cleverness on Cassie's part in terms of the novel choice of revenge she seeks. Yet, ultimately the film feels like a revenge story that doesn’t want to go full revenge. It's as if Fennell never wants Cassie to cross a line and be genuinely vicious in her settling of scores. Although there is a scene where we understand she would have used violence and we also never find out why some of the men in her notebook get a red mark and others a blue. Could red mean something more than a lecture took place?
But revenge films, and Fennell does describe her film as such, can't be half-hearted. Revenge films are about taking the law into your own hands because conventional justice falls short in the real world and those who seek revenge do often cross a line — sometimes it's something they can never come back from and sometimes it is a moment where they realize they have to stop. "Promising Young Woman" doesn't really deal with this aspect of revenge and in the end it doesn't deliver as much satisfaction as one might hope considering where the film started. It is also a revenge that comes from a place of grief and is meant to me for someone we never meet in the film, which is odd.
Part of the problem may stem from Fennell's own point of view about the story. In the press kit interview she says: "I like that response when people kind of laugh and then gasp because they feel bad for laughing. That's my kind of favorite place to be. I wasn't really interested in making a film that examined terrible crimes and terrible acts of violence and the people that commit those things, I'm much more interested in our culture and how and the kind of things that when I was at university 10 years ago were completely normal, that now seem horrendous ... I wanted it to be really fun and interesting and compelling and that the thriller element really felt real. And so if it was never going to work, if Cassie, you know, our lead was going around kind of telling people off for doing the wrong thing, it's much more interesting that the people that she visits, people who maybe have had a hand in the thing that happened in the past, it's much more interesting that they've really got a good point. So I had to be really, really honest and really careful about making sure that every single person really had a convincing argument, because otherwise it just seems too easy."
So that's a bit problematic. If you don't want to side completely with the protagonist seeking revenge and want to place blame on society rather than an individual then the revenge gets muddled. Plus I don't think the kind of sexual assault depicted or discussed in the film is unclear in any way. The men who take part or took part in the sexual assaults in the film were wrong and deserve whatever vengeance Cassie wants to dole out. And there are enablers that are also guilty be they lawyers or college admins.
The film "The Accused" tried to broaden the discussion on rape to consider that even if a woman initiates sexual contact she has the right to end it at whatever point she chooses and that people who witness and encourage a sexual assault should be held accountable. "Promising Young Woman" starts a discussion on those points but doesn't seem to know how to elaborate on them fully and that is disappointing.
There is also an extended romantic sequence involving Cassie and a guy who seems to be a kind of goofy Prince Charming. There are some montages of them dating that feel as comically bad as those in "Naked Gun" only I don't think the comedy here is entirely intentional. Her willingness to partake in such mundanely conventional notions of romance after all that she has been through make her character feel inconsistent and make it harder to respect her. Maybe Fennell is making fun of those clichés but if she is it is hard to tell.
Mulligan is impressive as Cassie but whatever complexities the character has seem to come more from her performance than from the script. The confidence she exhibits in dealing with male predators doesn't always make sense if she is also supposed to be suffering from depression. There's also a level of guilt and grief in her character that could be better explored.
"Promising Young Woman" has some frustrating inconsistencies but it presents a fresh female perspective and marks a very promising debut for Fennell. It is also bound to stir discussions that we need to have about the issue of sexual assault and the aspects of our culture and society that allow such assaults to occur with sometimes little or no ramifications. It is a film that boldly and unapologetically tries to make us see sexual assault from a different point of view.